Internal and external security concerns appear to have prompted China to intensify involvement in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan in the wake of the planned U.S. military drawdown in December. Regional analysts say Beijing is well-placed to play a central role in Afghan reconstruction beyond 2014 because its non-interventionist policy has earned China goodwill in Afghanistan. China has also increased engagement with close ally Pakistan to achieve its Afghan goals.
The United States and allied troops plan to wind down their Afghan combat mission in December, but there is no let-up in the deadly Taliban insurgency in the country and Kabul’s efforts to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict have so far remained unsuccessful.
The continued violence has prompted regional fears the foreign military drawdown will strengthen Islamist militants and Afghanistan could return to the civil war of the 1990s.
Chinese concerns that a prolonged conflict in the neighboring country could fuel unrest in its Muslim majority western Xinjiang region are likely behind its increased engagement with the Afghan government.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s rare trip to Kabul Saturday is seen as part of Beijing’s diplomatic efforts. After meetings with Afghan leaders, Wang emphasized the importance of a stable Afghanistan for his country.
“Afghanistan has special and important influence. The peace and stability of this country has an impact on the security of Western China and more importantly it affects tranquility and development of the entire region,” he noted.
The Chinese foreign minister warned that Afghanistan will have no future unless it overcomes political and ethnic divisions.
“So, we hope to see a broad-based and inclusive political reconciliation in Afghanistan as soon as possible and China will play a constructive role to facilitate that,” Wang said.
He called on the international community to deliver its promised aid to Afghanistan and help the war-shattered country achieve sustainable growth, saying only with economic growth can poverty be tackled and a breeding ground for extremism be removed.
China is hosting the next round of an annual meeting of Afghan, Pakistani and Turkish leaders later this year where discussions will focus on how Afghanistan can achieve political, security and economic stability with the help of regional countries.
At a recent seminar held in the Pakistani capital to discuss Beijing’s role together with Islamabad in bringing about stability in Afghanistan, Mushahid Hussain, an influential Pakistani senator and head of Pakistan-China Institute, emphasized the Chinese factor.
“China is the only major power with a border with Afghanistan. China is one major country which has no extra baggage militarily or strategically vis-e-vis Afghanistan, they have had no negative involvement in Afghanistan in the past. So, China’s image is very positive and China today is the biggest economic investor in Afghanistan,” said Hussain.
Panelist Chen Huaifan of Chinese People's Association for Peace & Disarmament insisted security interests of China and Pakistan converge on Afghanistan.
“Both want to see the transition in 2014 completed peacefully and smoothly and regard the political accommodation among different Afghan force be indispensable to the country’s stability. The two countries would like to see Afghan territory not to be used to destabilize another country. Regarding the bilateral security agreement between US and Afghanistan the concern of neighboring countries should be addressed and it should not compromise any neighbor’s security,” stated Huaifan.
Huaifan said regional countries need to work together for devising a comprehensive strategic and economic plan to help solve the lingering Afghan conflict. “We need to help Afghanistan find a new way of reconciliation rather than war or military action and also to engage Afghanistan in the process of regional economic integration to reduce the root causes of terrorism and extremism,” he stated.
Pakistan’s alleged association with the Afghan Taliban has been a source of concern for rival India and the United States. However, Islamabad has its own worries about New Delhi’s growing involvement in Afghanistan. Critics foresee continuing Afghan instability as a temptation for Pakistan and India to use the conflict-torn country for staging “proxy war” to protect strategic interests.
While China has shown reservations about U.S. plans to extend its Afghan military mission beyond 2014, some critics suggest a stepped up Chinese role in Afghanistan may be aimed at preventing attempts by regional countries like India to fill a possible security vacuum after the withdrawal of foreign forces.
“With the expected [security] transition in Afghanistan, it is only natural that China as a major power in the region braces itself for a balancing role in the strategically important regions in its backyards across its western border,” said former Pakistani foreign secretary, Shamshad Ahmed Khan.
China has long suspected Muslim extremists in its restive Xinjiang province draw inspiration and assistance from Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The troubled Chinese region recently has seen a surge in separatist attacks, and state media report the violence has killed more than 100 people since last April, including security personnel. Officials in Beijing also allege that some members of the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is leading the rebellion in Xinjiang, have taken refuge in the volatile rugged mountains lining the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.